Having a special needs child in your classroom can be stressful. Lacking the resources you need just amplifies it even more. However, if you know what to do, you can alleviate that stress and help the child find success.
College Didn't Prepare me for Special Education
I still remember my first few weeks in a public school classroom. My family had moved cross-country for work, and it was my first experience in a public school setting. There I was, a young teacher, all of a sudden handed stacks of paperwork for special needs students. My teacher training had inadequately prepared me for actually teaching these students beyond putting the fear of God into me over the legal and financial consequences of not following a student's IEP. Like you, I felt like I didn't have the resources I needed to work with some of my special needs students. If you feel that way, you are not alone.
Understanding Special Education
If you have a child with special needs in your classroom, understand that in some cases the process to get them identified will be long and cumbersome. First, a parent has to request or give their consent to have their child assessed for special education services. The school and sometimes even district psychologists have to evaluate the child, which can be a time-consuming process made up of a combination of teacher surveys, observations, and other student assessments. Then, the psychologist has to determine whether or not the child qualifies under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act for special services. The psychologist then works with the student's teachers and parents to define appropriate accommodations as part of the IEP team. That team defines the resources that will be available to the child through the Individual Education Plan (IEP). With the IEP should come access to the resources you need to help the child be successful in your classroom, but you may have to be persistent to make it happen.
Following the IEP
What emerges from the IEP team is the document that is intended to assist teachers in working with special needs students. The IEP lays out accommodations and modifications to help students be successful academically as well as meet their annual goals. The reality, however, is that sometimes the IEP just becomes a huge source of anxiety. For new teachers, in particular, trying to translate the words on the page into actual classroom practices is difficult, especially if you don't have the classroom resources to make it happen.
When you find yourself in that situation, it can be one of the most challenging times in teaching. The reality is that if you went to school to be a general education teacher, you probably have limited experience in teaching children with special needs. You may have spent a semester in a single course about special education in college; perhaps you had a little bit of experience during your student teaching. You may not even know what resources to ask for, to be honest. Odds are those experiences did little to prepare you for teaching special needs students on your own. The next step is to seek out help.
Talk to Your Special Education Teachers
It isn't uncommon for you to look at the IEP and the child and feel you don't have what you need. You're not alone. It can be challenging trying to teach a special needs child in an inclusion classroom. It could be because the child is identified with disabilities that cause behavior issues in the classroom. In other cases, you may have students whose disabilities are causing them to work significantly below the grade-level content you have to teach. Other times, you just may have no idea how you are supposed to implement the modifications of the IEP with the limited resources and time you have in the classroom. Those are the times you need to reach out to the case manager of your special needs students.
You see, every special needs child in the district gets assigned a case manager. Typically it is one of the special education teachers in your school. Make an appointment with them and sit down and talk about your concerns and your struggles. In a lot of cases, you weren't present when the IEP was originally written. The teachers who were present may have had different experiences or resources that made the plan viable in their classroom. Be honest with the case manager and let her know what's going on. If there is a genuine need for a specific resource for the special needs child in your classroom, they will know how to make it happen for you.
School districts are legally obligated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide certain resources for students who fall under the protection of the law. So if you have a student who is dyslexic, your school district will be obligated to provide resources such as audio versions of texts or text-to-voice software for the student to use in class to read or compose papers. If your student's disability causes them to experience significant behavior problems in the classroom, the district may be obligated to provide a teacher aid to travel with them to their inclusion classroom. If the child's disabilities cause them to read below grade level, the case manager can help you locate content-specific text at appropriate reading levels. So don't try and go it alone! Typically the case manager can help you get the resources you need.
Be the Advocate
The bottom line is this: as teachers, our job is to advocate for all of our students, especially those with special needs. So if you find yourself in a situation with a special needs child where you don't feel you have the resources to follow the IEP and help the child be successful, you need to speak up. Talk to their case manager because in most cases they are on your side. They want the child to be successful just as much as you do. They can help you get the resources you need. If they can't, it may be that the child's IEP isn't working for them and needs to be reviewed and modified. However, in either case, you have to speak up to make that happen.